Detering: False Witnesses

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Dr. Hermann Detering: False Witnesses: the non-Christian testimonies for a historical Jesus on trial (Aschaffenburg, 2011) Detering

Review by Uwe Topper

Dr. Hermann Detering, born 1953 in Oldenburg, was a critical Protestant theologian and was a pastor in Berlin for 27 years. His field of work is early Christianity, especially the Pauline letters and the figure of Simon the Magician. With his carefully developed writings in the method of the Dutch radical criticism, he contributed to chronology-critical research, even if he did not completely adopt our approach. The introduction of the works by Edwin Johnson and Polydore Hochart into our circle is due to Detering. He was also a gifted painter. Lately he lived on retirement in the Altmark. He died 2018.

The title of his new book already tells us the whole content: the non-Christian testimonies for a historical Jesus are examined. First of all, it is striking that in this area there is by no means a huge bundle of old manuscripts and codices to be examined, not even a few hundred text passages, but - at first it seems unbelievable - only a total of six very short pieces of text, the wording of which are betraying them as counterfeits. The book could end there, because if there is no really trustworthy testimony on the part of the opponents or contemporaries for this most important figure of Jesus Christ in all of modern history, then this person's historicity cannot be proven.
The result is clear: there was no such historical person Jesus.
This is not a new discovery neither does it bring a new attitude of the pastor to his faith - I will mention this in the same way as the author does, at the end - but is the confirmation of a fact that has been established for more than a hundred years, which was startling at the time and provoked many opponents, even outcries, but today in a time of general unbelief it rather appears as a marginal note, hardly noticed. Wrongly so.
It is worthwhile to pursue Detering's search for clues, because not only are the few sentences that might possibly testify for Jesus eliminated as worthless, but it also throws a sharp light on the forging practices of the Church. This work adds new clues to our chronology criticism. In some places, the author can make it clear how sophisticated the counterfeiters have worked. They indulged into the situation of a postulated young Church with the classical paganism surrounding it and introduced their additions to the pagan texts so sensitively that even critical thinkers were fooled. That is why not all counterfeits have been unanimously recognized as such.

I leave it to the curious reader to indulge in the testimony of Tacitus or Flavius ​​Josephus, whereby the fine work by Bruno Bauer and Arthur Drews is continued and even surpassed. It is a detective hunt with surprises and sudden insights. The cross-connections between the fake texts and their narrators, such as Synkellus, must be carefully followed. Many a discovery is new to us, because today research has made some progress compared to that around 1900, as surprising as it may sound. Detering explains it right at the beginning (p. 18): The options for analyzing old texts are much more precise and convenient now than a few decades ago, because with the help of electronic databases individual words, terms, and contexts can be read at lightning speed scrutinizing all existing Latin and Greek literature. This exceeds the capabilities of the most brilliant 19th century philologists we have always admired. With digitalization, a new step in text research has been achieved that puts all knowledge of the scholars of old in the shade. At that time nobody dared to dream of these instruments. You work on the computer as if you had set up your home in the library of the world.
Let's look at some details of this research!

The representation of the expulsion of the Jewish people by the Romans, so important for the diaspora conception, supposedly as early as 70 AD, a little more plausible after the Bar Kochba uprising two generations later, is the work of the church, and the invention of the martyrs probably begins with Origen in a similar context (p. 60 f). This realization, which we have just learned from Shlomo Sand (2012), is finally breaking ground. Detering's note 417 (on p. 156) explicitly quotes Shlomo Sand's 2011 book in this sense (see my review of Sand here in January 2011).

Detering has uncovered a secret by tentatively indicating who probably wrote Caesar's Bellum Gallicum, and also who probably wrote the Ten Books on Architecture of Vitruvius (151): a certain Fra Giocondo from Verona, according to Vasari born there in 1435 or soon after, who worked in Paris around 1500 as 'Architect Jean Joyeux'. Fra Giocondo was a friar, of which order is unknown. He also wrote the 10th volume of the Letters from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan, which stands out as an addition to the nine volumes previously written. Now, after Detering gave us the hint, we have to check this "funny brother" (Fra Giocondo), because he alone saw the alleged original of the letters (p. 80). Kammeier's spirit lives on in this way of working, a younger successor would be most welcome.

In some places I feel that Detering is not going to be persistent enough, despite all his rigor and prudence. It seems that he does not want to include the work of predecessors well-known to him such as Robinson and Hochart, Edwin Johnson and Wilhelm Kammeier. Johnson's "round table" is particularly striking when Detering unrolls the chain of counterfeiters involved (p. 102 f): Tertullian's nonsense is quoted by Euseb (Synkellos) and Hieronymus, and Prosper Aquitanus, Frechulf, Marius Scotus fall into the same hole and some others, too. Detering knows them all, but does not mention the illustrious round table by the turn of 1500 that Johnson outlined.
The conclusions from Detering's work for us are partly confirmations, but they also shift the accent and provide new reasoning. It now seems clear to me that the pagan texts were first written, not for the purpose of glorifying the Church of Rome, but as a sincere revival of paganism, and that the few Catholic interpolations took place later. The "counterfeiters", actually brilliant authors like Bracciolini and Ennea Silvio (for example) were still real pagans (as Paul C. Martin also emphasized), perhaps they became members of the Catholic Church in later years (Silvio became Pope Pius "II"). Their writings were used for the profit of the Church. The model for the Germania of "Tacitus", which Silvio wrote, is still somewhat different from the final edition, which Ullrich von Hutten praised so loudly (see Hutter 2000, discussed here July 2011).

Detering did not integrate the real process of creation of the Church as is obvious from this. If he believes that the early humanist texts are clerical inventions, he is wrong. The church was just being in statu nascendi when the ancient works were written. Chronology does matter! If the early humanists are now regarded as part of the Christian Church, this is the distortion that obscures the context.
Detering uses (p. 110) the previously unavailable early work by Polydore Hochart on the Neronian persecution of Christians (1885), unfortunately without repeating the important section (otherwise for Hochart see my review here 2009).
In this context I am surprised once again that the descriptions of the early twelve emperors were written very neatly, with coins and medals to their support, but the later decadence is only contradictory and sloppy. Detering also speaks of a modern blurring of traces (p. 113), which means that not all "improvements" are at the expense of humanists, but were continuously made, even in the 18th and 19th centuries, in abundance.
Not all suspicious sentences have been cleaned up. In the controversy about the darkness during the crucifixion, which cannot pass as a solar eclipse, a remark by Julius Africanus was retained: there were “earthquakes, splitting of rocks, resurrection of the dead and movement of the cosmos” (p. 170) the movement of the universe, which is added to the known other events, can also be read in the Apology of Tertullian, which is somewhat surprising (p. 171): “At the same time, daylight disappeared even though the sun was at midday. Of course, those who did not know that this was also predicted regarding Christ thought of course of a mere solar eclipse (deliquium). And yet this incident can be found in your secret archives."

Overall, "false witnesses" is an accusation against the Church, because the forgeries of these testimonies go on their account alone. Detering says (p. 57):
“You can see that in the past the representatives of the Church not only succeeded in linking historical texts by adding invented historical data, but also in 'infiltrating' and opening up the profane literature through Christian interpolations and statements of falsified documents in this way to integrate even non-Christian personalities from antiquity."
It would be worth repeating that there are, in total, very few testimonies: on first sighting only six remain, of which only four are known - Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus and Plinius sec. – and in the end, none of them has any value. So I have to ask myself why the church people weren't more diligent or wiser.
The author also clarifies one thing (p. 184): "Such conjecture has nothing to do with 'conspiracy theory', but takes into account the habits of Christian copyists in antiquity and the simple principle that winners write history." One would like to admit this, though I am bothered by the word "antiquity", because on the same page (and also frequently) Detering makes it clear that the oldest documents of Josephus (Jewish Antiquities) date from the 11th century, and the 10th volume of Plinius' letters only became public around the turn of the 15th century (misprint in the book, it must read: turn of the 16th century).
The courageous clarifications of church history through Detering are worthy of praise and thanks. His rejection of the "theological basis for business" (p. 187) could well result in suffering, which is why he mentions Bruno Bauer's fate in this context (p. 187) "who had leaned too far out of the window and was suspended from his Magisterium with the result to starve as a greengrocer in Rixdorf." His grave of honor in Berlin-Rixdorf, installed by the Senate on Detering's initiative, is seldom adorned by pious hands.

But now, on the last few pages, Detering's real concern is the question: what remains of Christianity if its historical central figure fails? "And yet it is necessary to repeatedly stress the point that the central form of a religion, which claims like no other to be based on historically verifiable events, the belief of which the exclusive pride of some theologians term as 'essential historical belief' (Küng), has apparently left so few traces in the history of its time that not a single non-Christian testimony can be named that surely proves its existence."
If we look at the profession of faith of the Christians, we understand that this creed, borne by historical events, becomes ridiculous when its base ceases to exist.
On the other hand, there is only the radical turning away from historization and manipulation, turning to the universal cosmocrator, the Lord Christ, as he was believed to be timeless, before a blinded church erased his real testimony. It remains the incarnation of the word as a myth and thus a genuinely religious spiritual field that is superfluous to defend because it has a life of its own as a human need and highest knowledge. Instead of worshiping an "unreasonable monster", the Church would do well "to finally allow consistent historical thinking to be admitted into theology and proclamation." (p.191)
This may sound like a cleansing but is brought up in succession to great evangelical thinkers and contains its justification in itself.


Detering, Hermann (1992): Paulusbriefe ohne Paulus? (Diss., Frankfurt/M)
(1995): Der gefälschte Paulus. Das Urchristentum im Zwielicht (Düsseldorf)
(2011): Falsche Zeugen. Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (Alibri, Aschaffenburg)
Hochart, Polydore (1885): Études au sujet de la persécution des chrétiens sous Neron (Paris)
(1890) : De l’authenticité des annales et des histoires de Tacite (Paris)
Hutter, Peter (2000): Germanische Stammväter und römisch-deutsches Kaisertum (OLMS Hildesheim)
Johnson, Edwin (1887): Antiqua Mater, A Study of Christian Origins (Trübner a. Co., London)
(1894): The Pauline Epistles (Watts and Co., London)
Martin, Paul C. (1994-1995): »Wie stark erhellen Münzen die ›dark ages‹ in Italien?« I-III(VFG/ZS, 4–94; 2–95; 3–95)
Sand, Shlomo (2011): The Invention of the Jewish People (London, Verso, 2009)
(2012): The Invention of the Land of Israel (London, Verso)
Topper, Uwe (1998): Die Große Aktion (Tübingen)

Reviews: Hutter - Sand I - Hochart

Uwe Topper 11. 2. 2013 (translated 24. February 2020)

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